The Swanpride Award: 1997-1998

Taken into consideration:

Anastasia (1997), Don Bluth/Fox, Traditional

Perfect Blue (1997), Satoshi Kon, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Antz (1998), DreamWorks, Traditional

A Bugs Live (1998), Pixar, Traditional

Mulan (1998), Disney, Traditional

The Prince of Egypt (1998), DreamWorks

Well, thankfully I won’t have to answer the question if A Bugs Live or Antz is the better movie, because frankly, they are both among the weaker movies of this period. Anastasia I considered for a long time, but in the end, I decided on the four movies which stood out the most to me.

Nominees-1997-and-1998

Nominated:

Perfect Blue (1997), Satoshi Kon, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Mulan (1998), Disney, Traditional

The Prince of Egypt (1998), DreamWorks

1997 is a really important year for animation, and not just because DreamWorks entered the fray. Now, DreamWorks is a studio which often gets a lot of flak. Deservedly so, imho. It spends too much time chasing after the latest trend. But, to its credit, it also has delivered some really remarkable movies, so I am glad that it is part of the competition, even though I wish its track record were better.
The other new player in the field of movie animation was Satoshi Kon, who was just incredible talented. Sadly we only had a very short period with him, but I hope that his movies will become better and better known in the western world with time. When people discuss adult animation, that is the kind of movies I have in mind and want to see. He was just an unique artist and storyteller. So excuse me when I am now starting to gush a little bit.

  • Story: Perfect Blue is a psycho drama and a disturbing examination of the way woman are objectified by society. The main character is an idol who is making the transition to being an actress. On the one hand she is struggling with her image change, with playing a new and yet not really different role. The movie poignantly demonstrates that the “innocent and clean” image of idols are in a lot of ways just another way of fetishism, while also pointing out that so called “dramatic scenes” in more series TV productions which involve putting female in questionable situations are less about the drama and more about showing off the “assets” of the actress in question. On top of the main character trying to find her own identity between the different roles she has to play, she also has to deal with a stalker. I won’t say more at this point, because this is the kind of the movie one should experience as unspoiled as possible. The way it is staged it is easy to loose yourself in it, developing an easy understanding for what the protagonist goes through.

    The odd thing about Princess Mononoke is that the movie is neither about a Princess, nor about a character named Mononoke. I guess the correct translation of the title would be “The Spirit Princess”. But the story is not really about San, who grew up with wolves, it is above all the story of Ashitaka, the cursed prince who encounters her. And he has more the role of an observer. The actual theme of the movie is the relationship between humans and nature. Now, I usually don’t like movies with an environmental message. Not because I have anything against the message, but because they tend to be incredible preachy and simplistic. Princess Mononoke is neither. I really appreciate the movie for portraying nature not like this poor fragile thing thoughtless humans want to destroy, but as a dangerous power humans have to deal with. Though I do have a problem with the way the movie handles violence. Unlike Perfect Blue, where the graphic aspects always serve the story, the violence in Princess Mononoke often feels unnecessary gracious.

    Mulan is one of those Disney movies which weren’t exactly a big success initially, but which are nevertheless beloved. Based on an old Chinese ballade, it tells the story of a young woman who pretends to be a man in order to take her father’s place in the Chinese army. It is an old concept, but it has been rarely pulled off as well as in this movie.

    The Prince of Egypt tells the story of Moses by concentrating on the relationship of two brothers which end up clashing due to both of them being set on a different path. And I would go so far to say that this is the best cinematic take on the story so far. If I have one point of criticism than the occasional lapses in tone. There is this big epic story and suddenly you end up in something which would fit well into a cartoon show, for example when the camel pulls Moses out of the sand.

 

  • Characters: The characters of Perfect Blue are kind of flat, deliberately so I think. The audience is supposed to focus on is the main character, Mima, the others are only important in the sense of how they impact her life. Or more, run her life, since she is initially portrayed as extremely passive. Especially in the beginning she seems to be more an overgrown child, sitting passively around while her managers quarrel over her career path. She participates in a traumatic scene because she feels that she can’t say “no” after getting the chance to even be in the drama series. She is also very naïve when it comes to dealing with the internet, from today’s perspective too much so, but, well, the movie was made during a different time. But the more the movie dives into her personality, in what is hidden under the different masks she is forced to wear, the more I like and feel for her. The real Mima is way superior to her public persona.

    I admit, I have a really hard time to connect to the characters in Princess Mononoke. Lady Eboshi is interesting because she isn’t portrayed as downright evil and I understand her motivations. But otherwise, I constantly have the feeling that I am missing something I would understand if I were Japanese. It feels like all the characters are a reference to something, but I don’t know what, which makes it difficult for me to truly gauge how well they are written.

    Mulan has easily the strongest cast of all of them. Mulan is such a layered characters that she got one of my first articles on Honoring the Heroine. I especially love that she doesn’t have to shed her own personality in order to become a good soldier, but instead has to discover and use her own strength. Her best moments are when she takes advantage of her intelligence rather than her fighting abilities. Shang has his own small story-arc, too, since he has to deal with the expectations his father puts on him, and with the responsibilities of his new position. In the end, he is the one who has to make the most difficult decisions. Even Mushu has  his own arc, despite him mostly being in the story to provide funny one-liners.

    The characters in The Prince of Egypt is a mixed bag. There are a lot of characters which turn up shortly and then simply disappear from the story. There is a lot of time spend on introducing Tzipporah, but she has no role at all once she is married to Moses. Miriam has in a way a bigger role than her and she is basically only there to eventually tell Moses the truth about his heritage.  Though it does allow the movie to concentrate on the central conflict between Moses and Rameses. Rameses gets easily the best character moment of the movie, when he is all excited about seeing his brother again, only to discover that he isn’t back to stand by his side, but to make demands. It is heart-breaking, and I really feel for him, despite what he will do later on.

 

  • The Music: Perfect Blue offers mostly typical Japanese Pop of the more forgettable kind. Quite deliberately so. It is a reflection of the kind of music you usually get from those idol groups, meaningless but easy to listen to. The score reminds me a little bit of Ghost in the Shell, but not quite, since it doesn’t demand the attention of the audience in the same way. Slightly disturbing, it is mostly there to subtly set the mood for the scenes.

    The soundtrack of Princess Mononoke is as epic as the movie itself. It underlines perfectly the visuals and makes everything seem grander. It’s not an instant earworm, but exactly the kind of music this movie needs.
    I adore the score of Mulan, which was written by Jerry Goldsmith. And I like the songs, in fact, “Be a Man” is one of my favourite Disney songs. I also appreciate how “Reflexions” introduces a theme, which will be picked up multiple times later in the story. That is some really clever text-writing of Howard Ashman calibre.  But the songs and the score are not written by the same composer and it shows. They both fit the movie but somehow they don’t really fit each other that well. It is a small detail, but one I can’t overlook in my judgement. And then there is the pop song in the end. Which for some reason doesn’t start playing during the end credits, but right into the last scene.

    “Deliver us”, “When you believe”, The Prince of Egypt is full of memorable songs. The only one I really don’t like is “Through Heaven’s eyes”. That one is pointless, preachy, annoying and doesn’t really fit in the rest of the soundtrack at all. What I really appreciate is the use of Hebrew in the songs, reminding the audience that the origin of this particular story is most likely a piece of real Jewish history. And the score, well, it is Hans Zimmer. It is a perfect extension of the songs.

 

  • The Animation: There is no question that the movie out of the four which has the worst animation is Perfect Blue. This movie is the equivalent of binding an artist one arm on his back. A lot of the angles chosen are inspired, but there is no hiding that the budget for this movie wasn’t that high. Especially when it comes to the character animation. When the characters talk, they often move only their mouth, animation is reused in different scenes, this is barely better than TV-animation.

    Princess Mononoke on the other hand excels in this regard. The landscapes are incredible and while I don’t really like the level of violence in it, the way it is portrayed can be strangely compelling. The fight scenes are fluid and fast – there is really nothing to criticise about it and a lot to love.

    The style of Mulan is inspired by Chinese Watercolours. It makes a lot of use of the empty space in a way which reminds me of the large scales in Cinderella. China looks gigantic. But it often feels as if the animators could have gone the extra-mile but then didn’t. That is especially evident in the number of soldiers in Mulan’s troupe. There seem to be less and less of them in every scene until there are, what, barely ten men standing against a whole army of Huns.

    The Prince of Egypt is an interesting mix between Egyptian art and some really impressive animation. If there is one point of criticism, than that the animators are sometimes go a little bit overboard. For example in the end, when the Red Sea is parted. It is not enough to show a giant wall of water, no, they also had to add a whale swimming through it. It looks so ridiculous over the top, that it always destroys for me what should be a breath-taking moment.

This is surprisingly difficult. After all,  Princess Mononoke is not just a Studio Ghibli movie, it is practically the Beauty and the Beast of studio Ghibli, a movie which won in categories no other animated movie ever had chance to break in. This makes it hard to even consider other movies for the win. And yet, I think that all four of them are something special in their own way. Thematically The Prince of Egypt might be the weakest, but I really appreciate the new angle it took on a story which isn’t that easy to tell. It just lacks the layers the other movies offer.
Mulan is in a way an underrated Disney movie, and a very clever commentary on gender roles. I have honestly no idea why it doesn’t stand side by side with movies like The Lion King. It is perhaps a little bit too understated to really catch the attention of the general audience. But the only thing I don’t like about it is the very ending. I mean, we just had the perfect scene in the reunion of Mulan and her father, but then we end with pop music and chickens? Why?
The movie which impressed me the most turned out to be Perfect Blue. It came really close to taking the top spot and it is only the subpar animation which made me stick with Princess Mononoke in the end. Not an easy decision, and on a more personal level I like the other three movies better, but Princess Mononoke is a movie which excels in story-telling and animation. It deserves to be part of the final selection.

 

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8 responses to “The Swanpride Award: 1997-1998

  • The Animation Commendation

    I’ve only seen Mononoke and Mulan, so out of the two choices, yeah Mononoke is the better film!

  • smilingldsgirl

    For me it would be Prince of Egypt, Princess Mononoke, Mulan and Perfect Blue. The top 3 made my top animated countdown, Prince of Egypt a 7, Princess Mononoke a 12. I didn’t have any of those issues you did. My only critique on Prince of Egypt was the evil priest song could be eliminated. I never felt like I missed anything in Mononoke. It combines magic and a battle story in such a beautiful way. Mulan I agree is underrated. If it had a better villain I would love it even more.

    • swanpride

      I see Shan yu mostly as a representation of war, and he works pretty well in this role.

      • smilingldsgirl

        Yeah we definitely disagree on that one. There’s plenty of great war movies with charismatic memorable villains that it’s not a valid excuse to me. But I still love the movie. It’s in my top 50.

      • swanpride

        It will be interesting to see which movies will compete in the last round….so far, it is a more diverse bunch than I though. I expected to end up with Disney more often, but a lot of great Disney movies knocked out other great Disney movies.

      • smilingldsgirl

        True. It will be very interesting. I ended up with Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, Cinderella and Fantasia as my top Disney.

      • swanpride

        Well, at least Beauty and the Beast and Fantasia is still in the competition and The Little Mermaid might be. Cinderella is just unlucky to have been released in a very strong decade. Even if I hadn’t picked Sleeping Beauty, I would have most likely picked Lady and the Tramp instead.

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